I've learned the language from the refugees...exclusive interview with Mina Jaf
What motivated you to become an EVS volunteer at a refugee center in Belgium?
I have worked with EVS before in Denmark, helping people to participate in different projects. At one point I realised that I could apply for a project myself. There are so many opportunities, projects and organisations which made me nervous about the process. I knew that I wanted to choose a project rather than a country. When I chose the project I even didn’t know where Belgium was but the project was so interesting and right for me. I worked in this field for many years and I have been a refugee myself too. I had to work with people from different places, ages and religious backgrounds during my previous jobs. I really like a diverse place, and this was the main reason I chose the project.
Can you explain about the organisation and the project?
The Flemish Refugee Action is an NGO which works with asylum-seekers coming to Belgium. They focus on advocacy and lobbying, giving advice to the government about handling refugee issues, and they provide shelters too. My project was called Startpoint. I was a coordinator, a link between the volunteers and the organisation. We had a platform just 500 meters next to the Immigration Office where around 250 volunteers from different countries give information for asylum seekers in 26 languages. It is basic information about the asylum procedure and the rights they have in Belgium.
Are they usually aware of their rights and how the process looks like?
Most of them are not and giving information is extremely difficult. For instance, I talked to a 15-year-old boy who fled from Afghanistan, his parents disappeared on the way. I wanted to explain the asylum process speaking Dari with him, telling him about the Dublin Agreement and how he could get in touch with lawyers. Then I realised that he didn’t know what the words „lawyer” or „Dublin” meant even in his own language. He came from a country where he was not allowed to practice his rights, he didn’t even know what it meant to have a right. So, giving information is very different from person to person. We are informing around 200 people and we have only one hour.
I realised I needed to organise more trainings for the volunteers about asylum-seeking so they can inform people more easily. In the beginning, there were no volunteer meetings. I started to organise meetings monthly and developed information evenings about the asylum procedure, inviting experts to talk about different topics. It is crucial that as we are not lawyers, we could not advise asylum-seekers, we could only provide information. It can be difficult sometimes to differentiate between advice and information, this is why I developed the training. I organised activities like cooking together and volunteer parties too, to thank them for the great job they did during the crisis.
How do you feel about your EVS experience? What did you learn, what difficulties did you come across?
Every second of the EVS project has been wonderful, even the hard times. The project was difficult as you work with sensitive issues, and at times it was pretty emotional. I made many new friends among the volunteers and the staff. I liked Belgium too, I realised there really is a platform for NGOs here, with all kinds of events that help you to get to know people from other organisations.
As I was in a new country without my family or any kind of support, I sometimes had to ask for help from people I only knew for two days. That made it easier for me to trust new people which was not in my comfort zone before. Overall, I learned a lot, like to coordinate and to believe in myself. I also learned a new language, Dari, which is a language spoken in Afghanistan. I spoke Dari to the refugees a lot.
So you actually learned the language from the refugees?
Yes. I already knew it a bit because it is close to Kurdish but now I am able to give information in Dari.
You have been a refugee before as well, can you tell us about your situation as a refugee?
My family and I fled from the Kurdish part of Iraq as the situation was very bad there. It is not easy to leave everything behind, to start over without anything. You feel naked. You have this wonderful family, good memories, traditional food and all these things you enjoy in life. We moved around 24 times, going back and forth between Iraq and other countries. In the end, my mom got tired of it and decided to leave Iraq for Denmark, she just wanted us to be safe.
How was it for you to grow up in Denmark as a refugee?
Living in the asylum center in Denmark was difficult. In an asylum center you need to put all your motivations and dreams on hold. Even though I was motivated to learn Danish, I always thought about what would happen if they sent me back to Iraq, why would it matter then. Until you get the papers, it is really hard. You see people around you who wait for an answer to start their lives. It makes you a bit depressed even as a child. It is not easy to integrate to society because integration needs to go both ways. The government always communicates that it just has to come from the refugees’ side. I never felt integration coming from the other way.
Did you feel that the Danish society is not that welcoming?
After living in Belgium, I realised that it is not the fault of the Danish people, it is not the fault of any nation. It is not easy to make friends in a new country, but it didn’t stop me to do what I like to do. Denmark is a great place to take opportunities and for education but it can be hard to have a social life. If you’re a refugee as a child, kids don’t want to be friends with you because you don’t talk like them, they would laugh when you talk. Luckily I never get shy, I just kept talking, but I know it stops a lot of people from developing their language skills. After a while, I also let go of focusing too much about how to „integrate myself”. I volunteer a lot, I have a big network, I help a lot of people, be it Danish or any other ethnicity. I think diversity is what’s most important and I see myself now as a complete person.
After having worked with refugees in Denmark and Belgium, do you see a big difference in how the two countries have been handling the refugee crisis?
I think Denmark used to be a very good example for taking care of the refugees before, and I was very proud of that. I am of course disappointed about the last couple of months in Denmark. On the positive side though, in Denmark, once you arrive, you are registered immediately and have shelter the same day. In Belgium, we had big shelter issues in the autumn, with thousands of refugees sleeping outside the tents.
Regarding the refugee crisis, there are many people who say that refugees are a threat to European values or the economy. What would you say to those people?
I hear these comments almost every day. I don’t think people should be afraid of the refugees. Maybe it’s difficult for the economy on the short-term but in the end, the economy can also benefit from the refugees. We have to remember that anyone can become a refugee, take the example of Hungary in the 1950s. In the end, these people don’t flee for nothing, they want to be safe.
You’ve been chosen to receive the Women’s Refugee Commission’s 2016 Voices of Courage award. Congratulations! How does it feel?
At the beginning, I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know why I should get it. It’s my duty to do what I’m doing. I don’t think that what I do has a prize. At the same time, I was really excited to receive the award and meet all these wonderful people who also deal with these issues every day, and gain more knowledge. It makes me motivated to do more in the future.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now, I’m launching my own NGO in Denmark, Women Refugee Route (WRR). It is an organization that focuses on women and children refugees’ access to information on their rights, recent information on the transit route and available services through deployment of interpreters who have the relevant skill set to pass complex information in the refugees' native language. WRR is attempting to coordinate services among multiple providers to assist victims of gender based violence. We seek to provide a sustainable working platform where we increase visibility and publicity of the purpose and raise awareness for the cause.
And here is Mina in the awards ceremony:
wrote&translate: Krisztina Tóth
source image: http://www.salaam.dk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Mina.jpg